Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Book focus - Shape, by Jordan Ellenberg

There are three things to know about me when it comes to math:

1. I had promise when I was young, culminating with co-captaining our high school math team. We had team jackets made with money we raised selling bagels. Good boiled bagels. I was too embarrassed to wear mine much. We were the city champions for non-specialized schools, meaning excluding Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, et cetera. In retrospect, I realize that it might not have been on the up and up to have a teacher who helped make up the questions for the competitions.*

2. In college, I quickly realized two things. In most of my math classes, I would get lost halfway through most lectures. But the tests were always easier than the lectures. So in a turn of events, I majored in math anyway. I still feel sorry for the class where I was the teaching assistant, and it became clear some ways through that I was struggling with the subject as much as they were.

3. It was a struggle for me to figure out what to do with this degree, at the time considered less practical than being a history major. I tried to turn my knowledge of math (with an interest in consumer culture) into a career in market research, but I couldn't get an interview anywhere. So here I am - a bookseller with a shelf of math books.

Truth be told, I hardly read math books anymore. For some reason, publishers push a lot of fiction on us, but not too much serious nonfiction. Most of the books I read are advance copies, and there isn't the expectation that we booksellers will move the needle on the subject. I'd do better if I could read e-galleys, but I'm pretty addicted to physical books. If the industry follows the model of the current market leader, there are going to be less and less advance options for me, but I suppose by that point, I will be back to the point where nobody will care what I read.

When I think about it, one of the only math books of the last ten years that I not only finished but loved was How Not to Be Wrong, by Jordan Ellenberg. I loved the way Ellenberg integrated math into the real world, and I loved his voice too. It reminded me a lot of Freaknomoics, in the way he took an academic discipline and made it come alive. He didn't exactly turn the book into an industry the way the Steve's did, but I hear it did quite well.

In between teaching, proving theorems, and writing for various magazines (there's an article in The Atlantic out any second, maybe now), Jordan Ellenberg has written a second book, Shape: The Hidden Geometry of Information, Biology, Strategy, Democracy, and Everything Else. I'm not going to lie - I hoped I would have finished reading the book at this point, but I'm still on page 285. Why? The publisher graciously printed out a copy for me (so appreciated!), but there was a not-for-distribution notice in faint letters on every page. I appreciate their concern, and had it been a novel, I think I would have made it through, but Shape took a little more concentration from me, so I waited until we had our finished copies.

And oh goodness, was this worth the wait! Shape is the perfect title for this book, which shows that geometry is about more than proving whether two of the angles of an isosceles triangle are congruent. They are! Geometry is mapping and game theory and cryptography and artificial intelligence and predicting epidemics. Did I sometimes get a little lost reading the book? I did! But it's kind of like falling into a body of water with a life preserver - even if you're only an okay swimmer, you don't have to worry about drowning.

Once again, I should note how much I love Ellenberg's voice. He's such a good storyteller, and no lie, I have already laughed out loud many more times than I have in many a so-called comic novel. And when you run into one of your old friends, like the Fibonacci sequence, it's like attending a really good party, which maybe I will one day experience again.

Please don't worry if you get lost sometimes. Take my advice, you don't have to understand every detail to enjoy this book.  

One reason I'm thrilled I waited is because the finished book is just beautiful. The paper quality is top notch, smooth to the touch, not scratchy like the lower grade paper we get on most hardcover books. I'm not a fan of white jackets, but at least it's glossy so it won't get scuffed like the matte finishes. And the front panel has the author's initials, which is a rare thing nowadays. I looked at six other recent hardcovers I bought and the only other was Sanjena Sathian's Gold Diggers, so maybe that's a Penguin Press thing. I also loved the old-fashioned two-tone hardcover binding. It's rarer than you think - I found it on Commonwealth, Hamnet, Such a Fun Age (also has the initials!) No colored endpapers, but it's a trade off - I'm happy with what I got!

Last weekend I was able to drive to Madison and get Ellenberg to sign our stock. Real signature, not a bookplate, not a tip in! Order a signed Shape here. As a bonus, I also met up with Barrett Swanson, author of Lost in Summerland, and get him to sign books too. If you order either, ask for a signed copy in the order comments just so our bookseller double checks - there are probably some unsigned copies floating around. If you want a personalized copy of Shape, I'd direct you to Mystery to Me in Madison, which can handle those.

If you are reading this before June 2, we'll be hosting Professor Ellenberg in conversation with John Urschel, the former Baltimore Ravens player who has received a PhD in Mathematics from MIT and is now doing postdoctoral work at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. You can register here. If you're reading this later, we probably have a recording of the event here.

This event is cosponsored by the UWM Department of Mathematical Sciences.

*I'm pretty sure this story comes up every time I write about a math book. I'm your doddering uncle!

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